Sitting on a floor mat in a dingy room, six Siddi women worked to give perfect shape to the little elephants in their hands. Bright-coloured rags, shiny beads, colourful threads, satin ribbons and a couple of elephant drawings were spread out in front of them. “My elephant looks more handsome than yours,” said Annie, while showing the elephant key chain she was working on to the other five, making them giggle.

These women from the Siddi community, an Afro-Indian tribe, belong to Gadgera village located deep inside the reserve forest of Yellapur division in Uttara Kannada district of Karnataka.

The Siddis are the descendants of people who came to India from various parts of Africa over several centuries, as slaves, mercenaries and traders. There are thought to be around 55,000 Siddis in India. Many of them live marginalised lives as insular communities in Karnataka, Maharashtra, Andhra Pradesh, Gujarat, Kerala, and the former Portuguese territories of Daman, Diu and Goa.

Human-animal conflict

Struggling with unemployment, poverty, a lack of education and poor healthcare, the Siddi community of Uttara Kannada is also facing the brunt of human-elephant conflict.

“Our village is deep inside the forest and we are living here for many generations,” said Vimla, a Siddi woman from Gadgera village, where 40 Siddi families live. “We practice agriculture and grow paddy, corn and sugarcane. But, between August and January, elephants regularly attack our crops and cause huge damage. We have always viewed elephants as our enemies.”

Gadgera is not the only village in the district that is in a standoff with wild elephants. There are regular reports of human-elephant conflict in Karnataka, which has the highest number of elephants in India. Of the country’s total elephant population (between 27,785 and 31,386), Karnataka has between 3,900 and 7,458 elephants. Uttara Kannada district has an elephant population of 70.

According to news reports, human-elephant conflict is on the rise. In 2012, the Karnataka High Court set up a task force to address this issue. In September that year, in a report submitted to the court, the Karnataka Elephant Task Force estimated that on an average 25-30 people were killed in the state every year due to elephant attacks. The all India figure is 250-300 deaths per year. Some claims put the figure at 400 deaths a year. Over 100 elephants are killed every year in retaliatory attacks. In 2013-’14, the state government paid Rs 993.8 lakh to the families of people who had died, for crop losses and property damage.

The reasons

Prachi Mehta, executive director (research), of Pune-based Wildlife Research and Conservation Society, notes that development is the main cause of conflict between humans and animals.

“Destruction of forests, infrastructure projects such as railways, dams, highways have fractured the elephant corridors because of which there is an increased face off between elephants and local villagers," she said. "And, casualties are on both the sides.”

Causes for human-elephant conflict listed in official reports include ill-planned mini-hydel projects, quarrying activities and other commercial infrastructure projects in and around elephant habitats in Karnataka, which has pushed the animals into the neighbouring states of Maharashtra and Goa.

Forest departments have tried to address the problem by constructing elephant-proof trenches and installing solar fences. However, field-based studies conducted in Karnataka and Maharashtra by the Wildlife Research and Conservation Society show how engineering solutions like barriers have failed to keep elephants away from the fields and villages.

Conflict management

Since 2009, the Wildlife Research and Conservation Society has been implementing a community-based conflict management project in 95 villages in Uttara Kannada district. As part of this project, wildlife researchers have been training farmers to use simple, low-cost methods of guarding their fields from elephants. The methods are described in a do-it-yourself guide on crop protection that the society published titled Sharing Space with Elephants. They include a night guard, setting up a trip alarm, introducing cowdung, chilly and fire-cracker deterrents, using catapults and erecting bee-hive fences as elephants are scared of bees. These methods cost between Rs 50 and Rs 300, and the raw materials required, like hay, cow dung cakes and waste chilli seeds, are easily available in the villages.

Gadgera, however, was a difficult village to convince.

Ravi Bandekar, the Wildlife Research and Conservation Society’s project officer in Uttara Kannada, was regularly visiting the village since 2014 to train farmers in these low-cost crop guarding methods.

“I would…demonstrate how to make chilli paste and spread it on an old rag and hang it at the elephant’s entry point,” said Bandekar. In the evenings, he would hang a nine-foot long chudi (a bundle of dry grass filled with chilli waste, waste oil and bones, and set on fire) from a tree at the spot elephants entered Gadgera from. But despite repeated demonstrations, the village’s farmers were not keen to adopt these measures on a regular basis.

With elephants seen as the enemy here, it wasn't easy to convince villagers to work on a project that was essentially about the conservation of elephants.

Tactical shift

Early this year, Mehta decided that the conservation society needed to change its tactics. She organised the village women into a self-help group and began training them to make elephant-themed handicrafts that could be sold in the market, bringing the women an additional income.

“In order to change the villagers’ perception of elephants as enemies, it is important that pachyderms bring some financial benefit to the farmers who regularly face huge crop losses,” said Mehta.

But since the wildlife biologist did not know anything about stitching and handicrafts, she decided to learn the basics. Once she was confident enough, she approached the Siddi women of Gadgera with her proposal.

“I just demonstrated once how to make key chains and wall hangings, and within minutes these Siddi women were making their own craft items, which were far better than mine,” said Mehta. Over time, the women also learnt to make elephant-themed cushion covers, pillow covers, bags, car hangings and paper bags.

(Photo credit: Nidhi Jamwal)

The women have taken to making the handicrafts in their free time.

“Earlier in the afternoons, we used to sit idle in front of the village church and gossip,” said Manjula, a village resident. “But now, we enjoy the afternoons making various craft items. We also come up with new ideas to create new products.”

Apart from Gadgera, there are five other such self-help groups in elephant-affected villages in the district.

Income from Airavat

The Wildlife Research and Conservation Society supplies the groups with raw materials such as rags, beads, cotton stuffing, ribbons, threads and elephant stencils. It is also takes care of the marketing and selling of the products under the brand name Airavat – the mythological elephant who is Indra's mount.

Between September 21 and September 24, Airavat set up a stall at the Student Conference on Conservation Science held at Bengaluru, where it did business worth Rs 10,000. The money earned from sales is handed over to the self-help group. “As a rule, we make equal amount of handicraft items and share the money equally among all the members,” said Vimla. “Some amount of money is set aside as seed money. We maintain our records in a register.”

Along with training the women to make craft items, the society has also taught them about the low-cost methods of keeping elephants away from the fields. Since the women are also farmers, they have taken a keen interest in learning how to safeguard their crops. “We regularly use chill-based barriers to ward off elephants,” said Annie. “We never thought these simple methods would help us protect our crops.”

Farmers from Gadgera village burn these nine-foot long chudi made up of newspaper, dry hay, waste chilli seeds, waste oil, bones and hair every evening at the spot where elephants usually enter the village from. These burn slowly through the night. The pungent smoke they release keeps elephants away. (Photo credit: Nidhi Jamwal).

Following the women taking the lead, the village’s men have also started taking an interest in protecting their fields using these methods.

Mehta is happy that the conversation around elephants is slowly changing.

“Rather than complaining that elephants are our enemies, we now discuss how beautiful our elephants are,” said Annie, laughing.

Nidhi Jamwal is a Mumbai-based freelance environment journalist. Her Twitter handle is @JamwalNidhi.